Amgueddfa Blog: Cadwraeth

Over the last few months you may have seen the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories team on social media using the hashtag ‘Finds Friday’, where we’ve been showcasing some of our wonderful treasure and non-treasure items recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru.

This month we’d like to focus on two special finds from Wales: The Abergavenny Coin Hoard and a prehistoric feasting site in Llanmaes.

Why these two finds?

Both have been nominated in a nationwide competition, held by the British Museum and The Daily Telegraph, to search for the nation’s favourite treasure item from the ‘Top 20’ list.

2017 marks the 20th anniversary since the passing of the 1996 Treasure Act and items on the ‘Top 20’ list highlight some of the most important treasure discoveries since the Treasure Act.

We might be a tad biased towards which ones we’ll be voting for, but we want to share the history behind these finds as they really do have a story to tell, or in the case of Llanmaes, an enigmatic mystery as to what was actually happening at the site. You can read about the 20 items by clicking this link, and don't forget to vote!

Llanmaes

Our first nomination on the ‘Top 20’ treasure list is a site, rather than a single group of objects. The discovery is a prehistoric feasting place and settlement, uncovered in Llanmaes, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

This important site was discovered following the reporting of a potential treasure find by two metal detectorists in 2003, and excavation continued for the next seven years by archaeologists from the National Museum of Wales, assisted by students from Cardiff University and local volunteers.

The story behind Llanmaes

The earliest remains on the site, dating to about 2150-1950 BC, are the cremated remains of an adult male, which were buried in an urn. It seems that this burial provided the focus for later settlement, which yielded treasure objects such as a gold bead. One mystery object in the shape of a great white shark’s tooth has left archaeologists puzzled. We’re not too sure where it came from or why it was left there!

By the beginning of the Iron Age (about 675 BC) this settlement had been abandoned, but the site continued to be the focus of human activity in the form of feasting, which left behind an extensive midden deposit. This is the first known example from Wales, of a class of middens representing remarkable accumulations of cultural material gathered by communities at the beginning of the Iron Age. This has revealed an extraordinary prehistoric feasting mound, containing thousands of pig bones, further feasting vessels, bronze cauldrons, pottery and axes.

Unexpectedly, nearly three-quarters of the animal bones were from pigs – a far higher proportion than is usual for such deposits, and, even more remarkable is the discovery that the majority of the pigs’ bones were from the right fore-quarter of the animal. Similarly, some of the axe-heads are of a type associated with parts of northern France, so it seems as though people were converging on Llanmaes during the Early Iron Age from a wide area to engage in cultural activities which had clear rules and accepted practices.

Feasting seems to have come to an end at the site during the Roman period, when changing cultural practices made the earlier rituals less appropriate, but evidence of continued Roman occupation suggests that it still held meaning for local people into the 4th century AD.

The community at Llanmaes were closely involved with the excavations over the years, and the National Museum’s Archaeology department brought in a number of school groups to work with artists on creative responses, such as performances, inspired by the site.

Abergavenny hoard

In April 2002 three metal-detectorists had the find of their lives in a field near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire where they found a scattered hoard of 199 silver pennies.

The Abergavenny hoard is the earliest Norman hoard from Wales and provides a vivid picture of monetary circulation in the Welsh March in the 1080s CE. It includes 130 coins of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (1042-66) and 69 coins of the Norman king William the Conqueror (1066-87).

Where did they come from?

Norman incursions into Gwent (present-day Monmouthshire) had followed hard on the heels of the conquest of England by Duke William in 1066 and they brought with them the habit of using coins.

The 199 silver pennies provide a rich mixture of issues of Edward the Confessor (1042-66) and William the Conqueror (1066-87); there are coins of 104 moneyers from 36 mints, with Hereford prominent.

The coins had been lost or hidden in a cloth bag, after about 1080 CE and for most people living in that time they would have represented several months’ pay. However, the lack of positive archaeological context makes it impossible to judge whether the coins had been concealed deliberately or were simply lost. We shall probably never know quite why these coins ended up in the corner of a field in Monmouthshire but, as well as expanding our knowledge of the coinage itself, they will cast new light on monetary conditions in the area after the Norman Conquest.

And there we have it, our two treasure finds on the ‘Top 20’ treasures list.

The online voting continues until May 15th, and you can vote for LLanmaes or the Abergavenny Hoard by following this link:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/treasure-20-vote-favourite/.

Our collaborations with Cardiff University in the area of heritage science continue to grow. Just before Easter, Daniel Griffiths from the School of Engineering contributed towards our goal of developing monitoring tools for use by museum conservators.

One of the routine tasks of conservators is to keep an eye on the condition of items stored in museums. Being responsible for looking after Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales’ five million objects, the team of less than 20 the conservators have their work cut out. In addition to the sheer number of objects in need of monitoring, for some categories of items there are currently issues with keeping adequate records for comparison with future condition assessments. We also want to objectivise the entire process to enable easier comparison between assessments undertaken at different times or by different people.

Presently, changes to collection items (if any) are detected by visual assessments and recording these in a text form, often supplemented with photographs. If such items are small and prone to chemical reactions, the results of which are difficult to describe, condition assessments are very difficult to undertake.

How do we make things easier, quicker and more objective? Daniel, a student in engineering, undertook a pilot study to create an overview of our options for non-invasive damage testing in geological specimens (specifically, in minerals). Some testing methods – such as acoustic emission, ultrasound, and X-ray and micro magnetic resonance imaging – were discounted early on in the project for various reasons. Any further techniques Daniel considered are based on imaging or scanning, grounded in the assumption that most damage to minerals is visible as changes in shape, integrity or colour.

Initial thoughts on using artificially aged pyrite were replaced in favour of CAD-designed and 3D-printed models of ‘crystals’: one set ‘undamaged’ and a second ‘damaged’ set with deliberately introduced yet precisely known ‘decay features’, such as holes and cuts. Daniel then scanned or imaged these models and compared the results for speed, ease of use, cost effectiveness and accuracy of recording of ‘decay’.

The best results were obtained with the Artec Space Spider, a handheld high-resolution 3D scanner based on blue light technology with easy-to-use software. The downside of this technique is the high purchasing cost of this instrument and software. Mobile phone technology, which was one of the comparative techniques, is not yet evolved enough to provide useful (i.e., good image quality, faithful recording of defects smaller than 5mm diameter) results.

The results of this study are encouraging because they provide us with a good foundation for future development work. There are questions about the faithful recording of colour, especially of reflective crystal surfaces, and combining features of storage, processing and analysis of images through one single computer program.

Daniel was supervised by Prof Rhys Pullin and Dr John McCrory from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering. We thank both of them for their support and cooperation in this project.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

We wrote of dust before, for example here and here. The museum is like your home, dust gathers everywhere. Unlike my own house though, the museum is very, very big. The museum's dust problems are correspondingly large.

Last year a student from Cardiff University, Stefan Jarvis, undertook a dust monitoring project in the museum. Stefan was studying for an MSc in Care of Collections, which is a subject very close to my heart. Stefan is also the author of one of our guest blogs. Stefan placed a large number of dust traps around the museum building: in stores and exhibition galleries. You may be familiar with some of the galleries he investigated: our Geology gallery with the dinosaurs, the current “Wriggle” exhibition on worms, the Whale gallery and the Organ gallery where we display some of the largest paintings in the museum.

Collecting dust is really easy: prepare a sampler. Leave it out in a suitable location. Wait. For. Four. Weeks.

Once Stefan had gathered some dust he analysed the samples: he identified each particle under the microscope and determined where they all came from. This is where things started getting really interesting. For while undertaking scientific investigations are often laborious and involves much routine work, the results are often extremely illuminating.

This is what Stefan found:

  • More dust accumulates in areas of high traffic (i.e., many people walking past).
  • More dust accumulates at low levels (the closer you get to floor level the more dust you will find).
  • Dust composition differs between spaces. For example, most dust fibres in a library store are paper fibres, while most fibres in public galleries are textile fibres, hair and skin.
  • We found biscuit crumbs on the dust samplers in two galleries. This indicates that food was being consumed in these galleries.

Now, we love having people in the museum. In fact we undertake some of our collection care work during museum opening hours so that you can see what we are up to a lot of the time. Therefore, we are happy to accept that visitors always leave us a little reminder that they have been, in the form of a few dust particles. You can feel a ‘but’ coming on: but we do not encourage the eating of biscuits (or any other foodstuffs) in our galleries. Eating food in our galleries bears the risk of small amounts of food ending up on the floor, in displays, behind cupboards - or, as part of dust. Food encourages the spread of pest insects which, once they have eaten all the available biscuit crumbs, then start munching our collections. This is not something we endorse, because we try to preserve our collections for you to enjoy.

This means you can actually help us preserve the collections - by not eating in the galleries. We will be doing more work on this in the near future, by encouraging visitors to consume food in our fabulous restaurant or cosy cafe, not in galleries. In the meantime, we really do appreciate your cooperation and understanding for our no-food-in-galleries policy.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

 

 

 

The country craft of hedgelaying is being demonstrated at Fagans National History Museum during 2017. Hedgelaying creates a stronger, thicker barrier to keep animals within fields, and provides shelter and shade for them. This year it will be combined with opportunities to try out the craft and the museum provided its first hedge-laying training courses for the public.

Plygu Clawdd, Pen-y-cae, Brecknockshire, c1936

Creating fields and hedges

From the sixteenth century onwards, vast areas of open land were enclosed and turned into fields for agricultural use. Hedges were planted to prevent sheep and cattle from straying, and to separate grassland from crops. Such hedges also provided shelter, a source of food such as berries, and habitat for wildlife and fauna. Hedges were also cheaper than building and maintaining dry-stone walls.

 

The craft of hedge laying

Hedges are maintained by laying. Once the trees had grown to a certain height, they were cut and laid horizontally to form a stock-proof barrier. The cut is not made through the branch in order to allow the tree to re-grow. What is created is effectively a living fence. The work is done during the less busy winter months when there is less foliage and the tree will re-grow.

 

Welsh hedging styles

Methods of laying hedges vary in different parts of Wales. Styles differ according to how the branches are positioned, the use of stakes, and whether binding is used. Hedging is often accompanied by building banks and digging ditches. The hedges being laid this year at St Fagans are in the stake and pleach style from Brecknockshire (Powys).

 

Stages in laying a hedge, stake and pleach style.

Photographs taken in Sennybridge and Cray, Brecknockshire, 1972-73.

 

Llun o frigau wedi'u plygu. Pan fyddant wedi eu torri yn iawn, fe fyddant yn parhau i dyfu.

Llun o wrych yn dangos trawstiau wedi'u plethu

Llun o blygu gwrych

Llun o wrych wedi ei dacluso a'i dorri


 

 

Gareth Beech

Senior Curator: Rural Economy

Historic Properties Section

History and Archaeology Department

Rock collections in the UK are an asset worth millions of pounds. Many exploration companies drill into the Earth’s crust and extract cores for analysis – often at a cost of around £1,000 per meter of core. These provide the basic information before a commercial case for mining or extraction can be made and form part of the companies’ commercial archives.

Museums also look after collections and many hold large numbers of valuable geological samples. A common misconception is that rocks are stable, they do not decay or get eaten by pests. Which is why fossils, minerals and rocks surely must be easy to look after.

But think of minerals found in caves or mines: not just dark, but also cold and damp. Many hydrated minerals occur here, for example melanterite or halotrichite. Take them out of the mine, put them in a museum store where they are protected and well looked after – and they will dehydrate. Lose water molecules, decay, and are lost.

There are many similar examples. Depending on the mineral species they will take up or lose water molecules, recrystallize into something else, react with air pollutants or oxygen. A bewildering range of chemical processes can lead to the destruction of geological specimens. Fossils are affected, too: lovely pyritised ammonites turn to dust. Many specimens of scientific or historic importance can be lost in this way.

Museums do their best to halt the decay but are hampered in their efforts by many questions yet unanswered. What levels of indoor air pollutants are safe for geological collections and how good do our air filtration systems need to be? At what point do museum conservators need to deal with a specimen damaged by chemical reactions? How do we even monitor collections of tens of thousands of specimens for damage routinely?

These and many other related questions will be investigated in a new research project at National Museum Cardiff. A recent pilot study (manuscript in preparation) demonstrated the complexity of potentially damaging processes in a typical museum store that are thought of usually as benign. Further expertise in the form of academic and industrial partners is now sought to develop the potential for addressing elementary questions of appropriate storage of geological collections.

The knowledge generated by this project will be of wide-ranging interest to cultural institutions and industrial companies alike. Scientific specimens and commercial collections will be kept safe with the set of guidelines and standards which the project will develop. We will have the proper tools to enable us to care for our geological heritage appropriately - whether kept in museums or as commercial assets.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.